Lifeline for workers in a fix?

September 21, 2001

Researchers in particular will welcome the European directive on fixed-term work. But the bad news is that its impact may be mixed, says David Watson

The 60,000 or so academic staff employed on fixed-term contracts at universities in the United Kingdom will soon find out how the European directive on fixed-term work will affect their lives. The directive was adopted by the Council of Ministers in June 1999 after a protracted and problematic round of negotiations between the European employer and trade union organisations. It aims to prevent discrimination against fixed-term workers and to prevent abuse arising from successive fixed-term employment contracts.

In March 2001, the government proposed draft legislation designed to implement the directive. The regulations would outlaw less favourable employment conditions for fixed-term staff compared with their permanent colleagues and limit successive fixed-term contract employment to four years. But pay and pension benefits would be excluded and agency workers not covered at all. Furthermore, the four-year limit on successive fixed-term contracts could be exceeded where it was "justifiable on objective grounds". These grounds are not defined, however.

Reaction from the Trades Union Congress and trade unions has been cool, and there is a possibility that the regulations will be challenged at the European Court if the final version is unchanged.

Alan Johnson, minister of state for the regions and employment relations, who is in charge of implementing the directive, says: "There are particular difficulties with the implementation of the directive in this country." Legislation has been delayed by up to a year, possibly until July 2002.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that employers, unions and other agencies hold different conceptions of how fixed-term employment is used. For the past three decades, the research councils and many employers have characterised contract research staff as young postdoctoral researchers on the threshold of their career, freely choosing short-lived fixed-term status.

Trade unions and some academics present a different, more complex picture. A recent survey of fixed-term staff at Cardiff University found that fixed-term contracts are used for all types of work. A third of fixed-term staff were aged between 35 and 49, most in mid-career. More than a quarter reported spending six years or more on fixed-term contracts, while the longest period of continuous contract work was more than 26 years. But many people in the junior research and lecturing grades are often forced into carrying out open-ended work on a succession of fixed-term contracts without hope of career progression. Nevertheless, a small minority - often research fellows, senior research fellows and research professors - have chosen fixed-term status, usually because it allows them to focus on publishing and therefore improve their promotion prospects.

The proposed regulations would have different effects on different staff. For example, the provision for the continuation of fixed-term contract employment beyond a four-year limit if there is "objective justification" will not be a problem to staff who choose their employment status.

Unfortunately, fixed-term work is not an option for individual researchers or universities where it is simply appropriate or beneficial, but is an integral part of the organisational structure. Most universities have devolved staffing budgets to departmental level. External research funding tied to specific projects, or funding for particular courses, is treated as separate and uncertain income, even where the overall income of the institution is more stable and less diverse than that of many private firms, which do not find it necessary to use the level of fixed-term contract employment in higher education - 94 per cent of researchers are on such contracts.

University employers in almost every case of externally funded research could try to use this method of organising their finances to justify the casual employment of most staff, even if they did not wish to be fixed-term employees and the organisation did not suffer from seriously fluctuating income levels.

Regulations concerning less favourable treatment may have a similarly mixed impact. Their effectiveness depends on the fixed-term employee finding a permanent employee in the same establishment with whom their conditions can be compared. There is a danger, particularly for part-time teaching-only staff, that employment tribunals will not regard their permanent academic colleagues (who are contracted to carry out research and administration work as well as teaching) as legitimate comparators. This is even more worrying given the signs that the burden of the planned expansion of higher education will be borne by part-time casual staff. Between 1998-99 and 1999-2000 there was a 3.4 per cent increase in the number of UK academic staff. Part-time staff, even though they make up only 16 per cent of the total, accounted for 69 per cent of this increase in staffing. And of these, 85 per cent were fixed-term employees.

The government's 1993 science white paper, Realising our Potential, stated that "the fact that many scientists are perpetually on short-term contracts" was a serious threat to the UK's science base. To deal with this threat, and to restore the morale, commitment and productivity of most fixed-term contract staff in other areas, the government's legislation must contribute to a major shift by universities away from the reliance on fixed-term contracts as a substitute for good management and the efficient planning of resources.

David Watson is employment research officer with the Association of University Teachers.

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